Sitcom fanatics of a certain age no doubt remember Ernest L. Thomas, who spent three seasons in the late ‘70s playing scrawny teenager Raj on ABC’s breakout hit What’s Happening!! Surprisingly, Thomas did not have himself cryogenically frozen after What’s Happening!! was canceled in 1979, and the actor (who spent his years prior to Happening!! working on Broadway) went on to make memorable appearances in such high profile fare as Malcolm X, In the Heat of the Night, Martin, Everybody Hates Chris, and Funny People. I spoke to Ernest recently about his lengthy and varied career, one that apparently had no specific help from Burt Reynolds and will continue into next year via Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.
Tell me about your role as Chip “Freakshow” McDonald in Rob Zombie’s next movie, Lords of Salem. How did you come to be involved with this project?
[My character] is actually a radio station manager. I don’t want to tell too much and give it away, you know. They had seen a scene from this movie I did called Paroled. The clip is on YouTube. It’s pretty wild. People quote [that scene] to me all the time. All the hip-hoppers love it. They know it by heart. Anyway, the casting lady, she saw this scene and they wanted me. So they got me. And I’ve never made a horror film before — this is my first one.
Are you excited about that?
Yeah! You know, Rob Zombie, it’s great that it’s him, I’m a fan of his. It’s a great script. I respect him as a filmmaker and as a musician. He’s got that history, he’s not your typical going-to-film school guy. He did the music thing, and just decided one day, “I’m gonna do this now.”
The subtext I’m hearing is White Zombie reunion featuring Ernest Thomas on guitar.
[Laughs]. Hey man, it could happen! I’ve got the clothes now, I’ve got the haircut. I love rock music. I mean, I love all kinds of music, but rock music is so exciting.
Looking back on your career, is there any role you regret not not taking, or maybe a role you’re sad you weren’t given?
Yeah…I will say this, but the guy who got it was really the best for it. It was Kunta Kinte in Roots. It was such a big thing at the time. I mean, it was like, “They’re gonna do a huge miniseries out of Roots, and on ABC, the top network! Wow!” I already had What’s Happening!!, but this would be the crown jewel. And in the end, Kunta Kinte, it was between LeVar Burton and myself. [Roots author] Alex Haley went with LeVar because of his stock. He’s more of the right body type. Me, I’m so skinny. We both did screen tests, but LeVar was the best, no doubt about it. Kunta Kinte, that was his destiny. He did a superb job and they’ll be talking about it for years to come…but [my] EGO! [laughs]
So footage exists of you as Kunta Kinte?
Yes, and If anyone’s got a copy, I’d love to see it. I remember the cameraman came over to me after my screen test, where I was chained like a slave, and he said, “Man, you have this ethereal quality.” I ran home and I looked up that word, because I didn’t know what it meant! But it was so nice.
Can you clarify this Burt Reynolds story I remember reading years ago about what he did to save What’s Happening!!? It was something like you ran into him in Florida in 1979, he professed his love for the show, you told him it was cancelled, and he called the network and got the ball rolling for another season…is any of this true?
[Laughs] That sounds great. I wish that was true. Actually, Burt Reynolds was just a fan. He told me so when he was with Sally Field, and he told me again years later when he was with Loni Anderson. He was just really into the show.
Everyone was into What’s Happening!!, it seems.
Yeah, it was crazy! After the show got canceled, I went to Knotts Berry Farm and I went to Disneyland, and each time I was mobbed. I went to see Sister Sledge once, and Jan and Dean and Frankie Avalon another time — that one, that was an all-white thing, and it was still same situation. People were causing such a commotion, like, “Oh my God, it’s Raj! AHHHH!” They ended up having to acknowledge me from the stage!
Can you tell tale of any other celebrities professing their love for the show?
I was doing a play in 1998 and I met Van Halen. We were staying in the same hotel in Raleigh, NC. They were huge fans. And talk about an operation. Those guys are rich. [laughs] They had me on stage, backstage, trying to get me drink Jack Daniels. It was crazy. They’re huge fans.
Being a guy primarily known for comedy, were you intimidated or scared at all in preparing for or accepting the role of Sidney in Malcolm X?
No, I knew I could do it, but they didn’t want me! I fought for it. I wanted to prove that I could do it. On Broadway, before What’s Happening!!, that’s all I did — serious roles. People in New York said at the time, “You know, I don’t ever see you doing comedy.” Then I get this show, What’s Happening!!, and they say, “You know, I don’t ever seeing you doing drama.” [laughs] Spike Lee and his people didn’t see me as a serious actor. They loved me, but they didn’t want me. Thank God I delivered during the three or four callbacks
You were very good in Malcolm X. I was surprised you didn’t appear in more dramatic stuff after that.
Me too! [laughs] I was like, “What’s goin’ on, baby?” I did turn down one role right after that, of a crack-addicted daddy, a negligent daddy — maybe that was it. It just had no redeeming qualities, so I turned it down. You know, these things happen. I don’t know.
Outside of the Jacksons, whom do you think your hometown of Gary, Indiana is most proud of — yourself, Fred Williamson, or Avery Brooks?
Wow, man, that’s a tough question. Of course the Jacksons are number one. Well, you know, Michael’s at the top, and then Janet, but out of myself, Avery, and Fred…I don’t know! I love those guys, I can’t speak on that. I would love to think that it’s me, but I wouldn’t be mad if it were Avery or Fred. We all have our audience. As Jackie Gleason said — there’s a story that he took a role in a movie, and on the first day the director said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gleason, we don’t have much for you to do.” And Mr. Gleason said, “Don’t worry, they’ll know I’m here.” I hope they can say the same when I’m gone, that Ernest Thomas was definitely here.
James Greene, Jr. is a freelance writer who has actually been paid real money by places like the New York Press, Geek Monthly, Crawdaddy.com, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. A visit to his personal blog should eat up at least two minutes of your day.